June 14, 2022
Sitting down to write this column for “The Shooting Issue,” my mind immediately focused on the science and physiology of a successful bow kill.
Throughout this series, I’ll discuss shot placement and the potential physiological outcomes of various “hit locations.” It’s my hope these columns will help you avoid heartache and the waste of a precious wildlife resource we all value so greatly.
No one I know understands the lethality of arrow-inflicted organ injuries better than Starkville, Miss., native and retired surgeon Dr. Joe Bumgardner. Bumgardner practiced abdominal and chest surgeries for 30 years and is an avid, lifelong bowhunter. He has also assisted Mississippi State University by lending his medical knowledge to a number of deer research projects. Perhaps even better, Bumgardner enjoys applying his experience from the ER and OR at the skinning shed, where he has inquisitively studied the cause of death for countless bow-shot whitetails. The skillset Bumgardner offers in educating fellow bowhunters is truly one of a kind, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to pick his brain for this column.
Bumgardner is quick to credit two of his colleagues, and trained pathologists, for allowing him to submit tissues from harvested animals for processing in order examine the damage done to each respective organ after a broadhead-tipped arrow had passed through. He was able to correlate how mammals reacted to various archery injuries and ultimately define how that damage determined the overall demise of the animal. He sought to relate his human understanding of injury to that of hooved mammals such as whitetails, elk, wild pigs and antelope. In doing so, Bumgardner explains the primary classifications of death that result in punched tags.
Causes of Death
Shock and organ failure are at the top of the list when it comes to causes of death for bow-killed whitetails. The body maintains a very strict state of homeostasis between the circulatory (blood flow) system and the ventilation (breathing) system. An arrow sent downrange can strike the vitals of a whitetail and affect one or both of these systems. A heart shot is an example of a wound that affects the circulatory system, while the double-lung shot is the classic example of a fatal wound to the ventilation system. A combo shot — hitting both lungs and the heart — will of course result in death.
If you make a marginal shot on an animal — perhaps in the carotid artery or jugular vein in the neck — bleeding occurs but there’s nothing wrong with the animal’s ventilation system. As they bleed out. There’s a mismatch between the ventilation, which is still 100 percent, and the circulation, which is failing. This mismatch results in shock.
Bumgardner notes the most common cause of death with archery equipment is hemorrhagic shock (blood loss), on an acute basis. “Acute hemorrhagic shock refers to the 3- to 30-minute timeline until the animal loses enough blood to cause shock and ultimately the demise of the animal,” he said.
Bumgardner went on to explain how much hemorrhaging is required to cause shock. “When you hit a vital organ,” he explained, “the animal must lose approximately one-third of its normal circulatory volume to experience shock. Hemorrhagic shock occurs when there is enough blood loss that the circulatory system can no longer supply sufficient oxygen to meet the demand of the vital organs.”